Growing Up Jewish before World War II

            August 2012    
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Growing Up Jewish

By Ruth R. Adams

When I was very young, my sister Estelle and I lived with my parents, Evelyn and Israel Richmond, in Trenton, New Jersey. Trenton was a bustling town, living up to the slogan displayed on the bridge to Morrisville, Pa : "Trenton Makes, The World Takes." Roebling Bros. had a factory there, which supplied the Steel, for example ,for the Brooklyn Bridge. There were several chinaware companies, including Lenox. Farms in the area supplied produce to cities nearby. The Trenton Times, a daily newspaper, was widely read. Trenton was the capital of New Jersey, with a beautiful capitol building in midtown.. In the 19th century many European Jews settled in Trenton, attracted by the industries. Several department stores were founded by Jewish families: Goldberg's. Swern's and Cohen's.

In 1924 our family bought a house on Eastfield Avenue in West Trenton. We soon learned that despite the fact that there were several Jewish families, including the Grosses and Cohens, living on West State Street at the corner, there were no Jewish families on our street.

Our grandfather, Abraham Rothman, lived with us, and it must have been a shock to the neighbors to see him in his long coat and yarmulke. The only neighbor who welcomed us was Miss Eva Dean.

Miss Dean lived in a large "farm-style" house that had belonged to her family since the time of the French and Indian wars. In fact, Dean Ave, next to us, was the center of that property, and Eastfield and Westfield avenues, both north and south, were named for the adjoining areas. Eva was the last surviving member of the Dean family. She used to invite Estelle and me over to see her family heirlooms (now in the Museum). There was a sword used in one of the wars and many colonial dolls with which we were even allowed to play She had an English sheepdog named Laddie.

Many of the other neighbors were of German descent. This was my first taste of anti-semitism. One neighbor told us that we could not rollerskate on his sidewalk since we were Jews. My father, all of five feet, two inches, faced that neighbor and told him that if he or his sons touched us, he would call the police. Our next door neighbor seemed friendly but one day when Mother, Estelle and I were shopping, we saw our neighbor with a friend. Of course, we greeted her. When we got home that neighbor came over and told Mother that she did not want her friend to know that she associated with Jews.

My parents wisely decided that their children should get a Jewish education in the face of this. They decided on the Har Sinai Temple which was nearby on Bellevue Avenue.

German Jews had arrived in Trenton before the Civil War. In 1930 the Har Sinai Temple which a few German Jewish families had been supporting in lesser structures, moved into its new home. Because the members were of German ancestry, all services were in that language as well as Hebrew.

When Mother took us to see the temple we were awed by the sanctuary with the ten commandments emblazoned across the Ark. We saw the organ loft, the social hall and the Sunday school classrooms. We met the Rabbi, Abraham Holtzberg. He told us that this was the first and only reform congregation in Trenton.

But we were not German Jews. My mother could speak German since her town in Poland was across a bridge from Germany, but this did not suffice. My father was determined that we attend Sunday school there. These were depression days and the temple was trying to pay off its mortgage. I assume that is why they decided to accept non-German Jewish members. And so, that began my lifelong affiliation with Har Sinai, which stands for "mountain of God".

Every Friday night we attended services, Saturday we attended the childrens' services and Sunday we went to Sunday school. Later, I sang in the choir next to that beautiful organ. The rabbi became my mentor in many ways. One Christmas season when I asked him if I should sing the carols in school, he said, "you must have respect for their religion and expect that they will have respect for yours." I was confirmed and married at Har Sinai.

The definition of religion that we learned was: religion is based on the relationship of man to man and through that relationship one finds God.

During the early Hitler years, we realized that one of our neighbor's sons went off to Germany to fight for the"fatherland". My father said that even the dog was a Nazi. Several of the German children in my class in school called me the "little Jew." My most bitter memory, however, was of two of our neighbor's children with whom we had played for several years. One night they came running over to our house crying. When their parents came for them, we found out that they were moving to Teaneck to join the Nazi bund. During those years in the 30's I had nightmares of being grabbed and put in a concentration camp.

These feelings were intensified when, in 1936, I was ready for college. My father and mother went to Trenton High School to ask the principal which was the best school for their daughter who was graduating with honors. She said "Radcliffe" but added that they had a Jewish quota and she did not think they would accept me. My father said that I was going to apply. I was very worried but we always did what he said. Later, when I was admitted and realized that this was a college with many Jewish students, I went back to my high school and informed the principal that she was mistaken. Yet, my first day at Radcliffe, when I arrived at my dormitory, Barnard Hall, I am ashamed to say that I feared to have my mother come inside with me because she had an accent. Mrs. Smith, the housemother, greeted us so graciously that those fears were allayed.

I must add another story in this vein that I cherish. My father came up to visit me during my freshman year. He insisted on meeting the president of the college, Miss Ada Louise Comstock. We went to her office and were shown inside. I was so embarrassed when my dad said, "You are lucky to have Ruth here. She was an honors student at Trenton High School." Miss Comstock, who, of course, did not know me, answered ",we are very happy to have a student like Ruth with us." I could have kissed her.

During my long life I have had many high points such as: my marriage to Jim, whom I met when I was a sophomore at Radcliffe, and when he was attending Harvard Law School and whom I married in 1940; the lifelong friends I made while I was a student at Radcliffe; my children, grandchildren and great granddaughter; my attaining a Ph.D at New York University; or my becoming a professor and an associate dean at the City College of New York. Yet, I always am that little Jewish girl.


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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